Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Classical Coincidence

As I have written in past posts, one of the (many) things we collect at Darlington House is early-nineteenth-century pearlware figures of deities and virtues.  Made in Staffordshire, England, from 1790 to 1825 or so, the figures, which are almost all dressed in classically inspired garments fashionable at the time, were largely intended for the domestic English market, and relatively few of them were exported to the Americas.

Our "new" figure of Hygieia
English pearlware, ca. 1800-1820

We have been collecting such pearlware figures for as long as we have owned Darlington House, and we keep a determined eye out for them whenever we visit antiques shops, antiques shows, and auction houses.  As readers of this blog well know, we frequent such places rather a lot, and doing so is one of our favorite pastimes.

A nearly identical figure of Hygieia (?)
already in our collection

But we only rarely come across these figures.  Although we see mountains of later, Victorian-era Staffordshire figures whenever we are out and about, the earlier classical figures seem as rare as hens' teeth here in the American northeast.   We go to a lot of shows and visit a lot of dealers and shops, but we probably only come across one or two—maybe three—examples in the course of a year.  And when we do, we more often than not already own a version of that figure.

The two figures, side by side

Several weeks ago, when out in the town near Darlington where we do much of our shopping, Boy came across a pearlware figure that we did not already own, in perfect condition, in the shop of pickers where we have had much good luck over the years.

The figure had just come into the shop—a lucky find by the owners at a recent Brimfield Fair—and was exceedingly well-priced.  So, without so much as a hesitation, Boy bought her.

As we were sitting in the car examining our new purchase, both Boy and I thought the figure in front of us looked oddly familiar.  That's not surprising, though, since we probably own upwards of twenty of them, representing various goddesses, deities, and virtues.  The figures are all approximately the same height, decorated similarly in pretty pastel colors, and almost all of ours are women (we call them "the Girls").  Only relatively few of such figures depict men or boys, we have found.

It was not until we got back to Darlington House with our new figure that Boy realized that we already owned a figure that was almost identical to the figure he had just bought.  They both depict Hygieia, the Greek and Roman goddess of good health, cleanliness, and sanitation, and who was the daughter of Asclepius, the god of medicine.

Or do they?

The figure we already had in our collection carries a label from the dealer we bought her from ten or so years ago that identifies her as Hygieia, and we never had any reason to suspect that such an attribution may not be accurate.  But when comparing the two figures we noticed that they were decorated differently, in different colors and patterns, and had a minor—albeit significant—difference to their modeling.  But it was clear to us that the bases and bodies of both figures were made from the identical mold, and were—but for some minor variations—the same, although likely painted at different times by different people working in the same factory.

In examining the primary differences between the two figures—what they are carrying in their left hands—I am now not so sure that the figure that was already in our collection actually does depict Hygieia, even though it is the one marked with a label identifying her as such (seen in the photograph of the inside of the figures).   Hygieia, I have since learned, is typically shown carrying a snake, which the figure shown on the right (our "new" one) does.  The figure on the left (our "old" one), however, is shown carrying a sword, which is not typically associated with the goddess Hygieia.  Furthermore, she does not have the flaming bowl on the top of her pedestal that Hygieia has, frequently seen in depictions of her.  Consequently, I am now not so sure that these figures are supposed to represent the same goddess at all.  I now suspect that the one shown with the sword (our "old" one) is meant to depict another goddess entirely (could it be Athena?  Or the more obscure Enyo?), and was adapted from the mold originally made for Hygieia, but altered with different accessories (which were applied separately to the molded figure before firing) and painted differently as well.

Another pearlware figure of Hygieia
from Stafforshire Porcelain: 1740-1851
Pat Halfpenny, editor

Regardless of whether the figures are of one and the same goddess, or not, I'm delighted to have them both in our collection at Darlington House, and most pleased that Boy spotted the newest addition when he did.

Tell me, Dear Reader, do you think they are both Hygieia?  If not, who do you think the goddess with the sword is supposed to depict?


  1. Reggie, it is interesting to see the similarities and differences between the two. I presume the pitcher is cast separately and the slight differences in position account for that. But is there also a difference in the plumb of the pedestal? As always, a very interesting post.

  2. I love your collection but regret I have no expertise in the items.

  3. Your posting is fascinating, and just the sort of mystery that makes antiquing such a pleasure. Rather than being deities or virtues, I wonder if it's possible that one of your figures was altered to represent a national event.

  4. I would always go with the attributes for the best identification. As Ivor Noel-Hume and others have noted, these ceramics were often a mix-and-match affair, and even the original sellers were not always consistent in labeling. Either way, they look great together.
    --Road to Parnassus

  5. We used to have similar Gin/Water double-sided figure. Gin side he dressed as a beggar in torn threads,on the water side he's a dandyfied fop in striped trousers and a jolly waistcoat. My mother probably bought for pennies down in Devon, during the War,don't know where it is now?
    Herts Man

  6. My guess is that it could be the Roman goddess Justitia (goddess of Justice). She carries a sword and is shown with a flame - the flame of truth. The flame in this case looks a little like an overdone plum pudding! Since she supposedly had soothsaying abilities she didn't need to wear a blindfold as our modern Lady Justice does. Enyo is almost always depicted wearing a diadem so that possibility seems of lesser credence? Lovely purchases both and such fun to have a guess! Thanks for a bit of mind stretching on a miserably rainy afternoon. So happy you're posting again.

  7. As I recall, if you look around you can find numerous examples of figures marked "Benjamin Franklin" or "George Washington" that bear no resemblance to their stated subjects, but are almost identical to other figures bearing different names. Seems to have been a common practice by early 19th century manufacturers.

  8. I haven't a clue, but do see a distinct difference in the bend of the right forearm and wrist. Glad you are back, I was beginning to suffer withdrawal symptoms!

  9. Wonderful. I also share your love of pre-Victorian Staffordshire figures having a Classical or mythological theme. I must say that your two pieces are lovely and I am hoping that you will share more of your collection in the future.

    I have seen the one in yellow a few times, but never the one in the pink. I am not sure if you know of her website or not, (although I am guessing you do since you collect these figures) but Myrna Schkolne knows practically everything there is to know about these type of figures.

    Her website is www.mystaffordshirefigures.com

    One can get lost there for hours.


Please do comment! I welcome and encourage them, and enjoy the dialogue.

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